Nothing but a Man: A Review


Nothing but a Man directed by Michael Roemer (Studio V, $26.95)

Nothing but a Man was released in 1964, directed and written by Michael Roemer, a Jewish man who fled Germany after the “night of broken glass”, which took place in 1938 and was called Kristallnacht, just as the Jews were getting set up to be killed. He was a director ahead of his time, producing and writing a movie about the black experience in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Acts.

The movie focused on a black couple, Duff, played by Ivan Dixon, and Josie, played by jazz vocalist, Abbey Lincoln. Nothing but a Man is a movie about the relentless oppression of African Americans by whites in the 50’s and early 60’s in the United States in the north and south.

Most of the movie takes place in the south. Duff meets Josie at a church dinner, previous to which he stands in the doorway of the church, during the service, yet he never enters the church. Duff cruises through African American society, working as a rail hand making $80 a week, which was 4 times what the black men were making who lived in the southern town.

Little by little Duff’s personality emerges as he encounters white racism over and over again. Ironically, Jews played most of the racists. This is a powerful movie; realistically showing African Americans and whites as they were back in the 50’s and 60’s. There were no stereotypical players; it was life as it was.

Duff travels out of town to visit his son, who he rarely sees. On this trip, he runs into his father. Just like Duff and his son, Duff and his father are estranged.

As they made the film, life seemed to interfere. Every night the Jewish filmmakers and the African Americans went their separate ways. The film was shot in Cape May, New Jersey during the summer of 1963 when President Kennedy went on national TV to announce his civil rights bill was going before Congress.

On the night following the president’s address, Medgar Evers was shot and killed near his home in Jackson, Mississippi. At that time he was the field secretary of the NAACP.

There was constant conflict between the Jewish directors and the African American actors. On the first day of shooting the film, Michael Roemer asked Ivan Dixon to shave off his mustache. Ivan was furious and showed Roemer pictures of Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and showed that they all had mustaches.

Just as the movie was about racial relations, the filming of it dealt with racial relations in a parallel manner. One serious fight between Roemer and Dixon took place when Ivan Dixon decided to take off during the shooting to take his place in the March On Washington. The film makers, worrying about the budget, failed to see the importance of the historical events that were taking place during the making of the film.

Ivan Dixon and Rubin, one of the filmmakers, actually came to blows. Dixon knocked Rubin unconscious. After this serious altercation, the actors and film makers came to terms and the movie continued.

During the filming, near the end of the action, a church in Birmingham was bombed and four children were killed. Abbey Lincoln flew into a fury. Despite the ongoing conflicts, the movie was finished and Abbey Lincoln won a “best actress” award in Dakar at the World Festival of African Arts for her part in the film. Poet, Langston Hughes, delivered the award to her.

The Nation of Islam newspaper called “Mohammed Speaks” said of the movie that it was a “must see, don’t dare miss movie . . . a blood and guts movie of black life as it is, without apology.” Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Miracles, and the Marvelettes bring the soundtrack to life.

Nothing but a Man is a gripping film and if it were released today, to general theaters, it would be a big hit. It’s difficult to believe that just 60 years ago we were so primitive in our treatment of African Americans in the United States. Actually, when one thinks about it, the horror continues in today’s life.

This movie can be purchased on Amazon and is a must see. It should be shown in public schools, in history classes, all across the country. Ebony Magazine called it “One of the TOP 10 Black Films of all time.”





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